As protesters took to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown last week, reports surfaced that the Obama Administration was forcing police in the St. Louis suburb to return a pair of military Humvees to the Pentagon. The vehicles had been distributed under a government program that allows police departments to receive surplus military equipment. A paperwork error, the Guardian reports, had erroneously issued twice as many vehicles as requested.

Since the 1990s, the 1033 program has gifted police departments across the country — from those in small cities to major metropolitan areas — with excess military equipment worth billions. Now, with law enforcement protocols on the use of force and officer-community relations both topics of intense debate, this proliferation of military-grade weapons and equipment is viewed with scrutiny.

In January, President Obama signed an executive order to limit the types of items police departments can receive from the federal government. The change is a big one, but one that is also often misunderstood. While supporters argue that the move sends an important message to police departments to curb their use of military gear and tactics, detractors warn that the order is too broad to be effective, highlights inaccurate information, and could actually hinder the ability of police to use nonviolent measures.

Here’s a rundown of what’s at the heart of the debate over the demilitarization of local police forces, and what the new order — which takes full effect this autumn — will and won’t do.

How do local police departments get this equipment?

Through federal grants or the 1033 program, a section of the National Defense Authorization Act for 1996–1997. The program allows for the transfer of excess Department of Defense property to local law enforcement agencies at no cost, though local departments do pay for the items to be shipped, according to Michelle McCaskill, chief of media relations for the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA).

Why do police say they need military-grade gear?

For a variety of reasons. The bulk of items sent to police departments are actually office supplies or sundries like blankets, sleeping bags, and clothing — only five percent of the military surplus items distributed to police departments are weapons and less than one percent are tactical vehicles. Still, given the popularity of the program, the numbers add up: McCaskill says that the DLA has issued 94,885 weapons so far.

David Sklansky, a professor at the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, tells the The Trace that he believes many departments stocked up on weapons in response to post-9/11 expectations.

“The federal government was asking local police departments to be the front line against terrorism,” he says, “and local police departments had less money than they were used to in many places because budgets were getting tightened.”

“I think some departments felt that this wasn’t the time for Sheriff Taylor of Mayberry, it was the time for Jack Bauer,” he adds.

Law enforcement officials also argue that some particularly menacing items are used differently than most people assume.

“When people are talking about it in the media, they say we don’t need police to have grenade launchers and bayonets,” says Tim Richardson, senior legislative liaison for the Fraternal Order of Police.“But they just don’t understand how that tool is used.” For a local PD’s purposes, for instance, a bayonet “is basically a long knife,” he says. “It’s not affixed to a firearm any longer. Typically they’ve been used to cut seat belts open and get people out of cars.” As for those grenade launchers: Richardson says they’re used to shoot tear gas canisters in riot situations.

Richardson also cited instances where military surplus equipment was used to protect officers. When a gunman in an armored van opened fire on police headquarters in Dallas this June, officers were able to disable his vehicle by firing .50-caliber rounds at the engine block, using equipment they received through 1033.

But now they can’t have this stuff anymore, right?

Here’s where it gets complicated.

On the state side, there has been relatively little action to regulate the use of military surplus items by police departments. Montana passed a law in April that banned local agencies from receiving weaponized drones, combat aircraft, grenade launchers, silencers, and militarized armored vehicles from the 1033 program, and New Jersey has passed a bill that requires departments to get permission from their city or municipal councils before applying for new equipment.

Then there’s the executive order, which doesn’t go into full effect until October 1. It also breaks equipment into two categories, one of which can still be issued if the government thinks it’s justified.

And, of course, the order is only guaranteed to stand for Obama’s remaining time in office. “We do recognize the necessity of a legislative response,” says Democratic Congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia. He introduced his own bipartisan demilitarization bill in September 2014, and says that he’s secured about a tenth of the Congress as cosponsors. But he does not yet have the support he needs to get the bill passed, and he worries about the future of the executive order if no formal legislation is passed on the 1033 program. “Legislation would make those changes final.”

So what is banned now?

There are two categories of regulated military surplus equipment under the executive order: “prohibited” and “controlled.”

Seven categories of items fall under the prohibited umbrella: tracked armored vehicles; weaponized aircraft, vessels, and vehicles of any kind; firearms of .50-caliber or higher; ammunition of .50-caliber or higher; grenade launchers; bayonets; and camouflage uniforms.

Six of the seven items on the executive order’s prohibited equipment list have been either unavailable or have not been issued to local departments for several years, according to the Department of Defense.

What if a police department already has items that are now prohibited?

It can keep them.

Can they still acquire new military equipment through means other than the 1033 program?

Yes. And many do.

Including .50-caliber guns and ammunition?


And what’s the criteria for being issued items from the “controlled” list?

According to the Obama administration, “a clear and persuasive explanation of the need for the … equipment.”

Local law enforcement officials have to send in a detailed justification for why their officers require the equipment and develop new training programs and protocols to prevent its misuse. Most of the items on the new controlled list are vehicles, including armored trucks, helicopters, and drones, but it also includes crowd-control equipment like riot shields and batons. Because those changes won’t go into effect until the beginning of the fiscal year in October, officials have time to figure out how they’ll implement a new oversight system.

A recent investigation by Mother Jones detailed the process by which police departments currently request these items, showing how some departments have managed to secure MRAPs — military vehicles designed to withstand explosives — to patrol beaches and college football games and issue drug warrants. The new requirements only mean there will be more paperwork to process. There are approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country. In 2014 alone, the DLA filled 49,744 requisition requests for more than a million items.

“The biggest obstacle will just be the lack of manpower to oversee the reforms,” Johnson says. “Austerity has impacted the ability of federal agencies to enforce federal law, and the criminal justice arena has not been exempted from those austerity measures.”

So some of the equipment was already banned. Some of it isn’t used for tactical purposes. And some of it may still be issued. What’s all the fuss really about then?

“I think the executive order will have, and has been having, a symbolic impact at the minimum,” Richardson says. “It’s a signal from the administration, along with a number of other signals, that police departments should move back in the direction of community policing and retreat a little from the embrace of military weaponry and military tactics.”

“I don’t think the administration was under the assumption that they could stop police departments from relying on or acquiring military-style equipment,” adds Sklansky. “Nor do I think they would want to. It makes sense to dial back the use of that kind of equipment and those kinds of tactics, but not to eliminate them.”

[Photos: Flickr user Thomas Hawk]